Monday, April 28, 2014

"Songs And Dreams Are Better Than The Truth"

I am fond of perusing poetry anthologies -- the older the better.  As I have mentioned before, individual poems are more important than individual poets.  Of course, I have my favorite poets.  And, of course, the best-known poets have produced a greater number of good poems than the average obscure poet.

But there is something to be said for the forgotten, struggling poet who produced a good poem that has been lost in the Mists of Time.  These poems are waiting patiently for us in out-of-the-way anthologies.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Carnoustie House" (1962)

For instance, I recently came across the following poem in Georgian Poetry 1920-1922, the final entry in Edward Marsh's series of anthologies. The usual names are there -- Walter de la Mare, W. H. Davies, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden -- but so is William Kerr, who I had not heard of before.

                        The Audit

Mere living wears the most of life away:
Even the lilies take thought for many things,
For frost in April and for drought in May,
And from no careless heart the skylark sings.

Those cheap utilities of rain and sun
Describe the foolish circle of our years,
Until death takes us, doing all undone,
And there's an end at last to hopes and fears.

Though song be hollow and no dreams come true,
Still songs and dreams are better than the truth:
But there's so much to get, so much to do,
Mary must drudge like Martha, dainty Ruth

Forget the morning music in the corn,
And Rachel grudge when Leah's boys are born.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (1922).

As far as I can discover, Kerr published a single volume of verse: The Apple Tree (in 1927).  It turns out that he and Ivor Gurney were friends.  Part of me wishes to hear a Gurney echo in "mere living wears the most of life away."  Or in:  "Though song be hollow and no dreams come true,/Still songs and dreams are better than the truth." But that is pure speculation.

James Torrington Bell, "Landscape"

Here is another poem from the same volume.

On a Friend Who Died Suddenly
            Upon the Seashore

Quiet he lived, and quietly died;
Nor, like the unwilling tide,
Did once complain or strive
To stay one brief hour more alive.
But as a summer wave
Serenely for a while
Will lift a crest to the sun,
Then sink again, so he
Back to the bright heavens gave
An answering smile;
Then quietly, having run
His course, bowed down his head,
And sank unmurmuringly,
Sank back into the sea,
The silent, the unfathomable sea
Of all the happy dead.

J. D. C. Pellow, in Ibid.

Pellow gained some notoriety in his day when his poem "The Temple" was selected as one of the thirteen poems examined by I. A. Richards in Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (1929).  In response to Richards's request to use the poem, Pellow good-naturedly responded:  "It is pleasant to know that I am serving the cause of science!"  Ibid, page 367. Pellow no doubt knew what he was in for at the hands of Richards.  But perhaps he got the last laugh:  Pellow's poem received the highest "favourable" ranking from the Cambridge students who read and analyzed the poems selected by Richards, thus triumphing over poems by John Donne, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence.  Ibid, page 365.

Those of you who hold to strict critical principles may find this sort of poem to be not worthy of close attention.  I concede that J. D. C. Pellow is not Thomas Hardy or W. B. Yeats.  Call me soft-hearted or soft-headed or bereft of critical principles (whatever they are), but I like (unapologetically) this poem.  And I love the last four lines.

James Torrington Bell, "Braes of Downie" (1938)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Perspective, Part Fifteen: Beetles

Yesterday was one of those expansive April days.  The slate-grey waters of Puget Sound were silver-ribboned and cloud-shadowed.  Across the fields, the young yellow-green leaves of the deciduous trees stood forth against the dark green boughs of the evergreens. The phrase "Pied Beauty" came to mind, thus:

                           Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things --
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                    Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition, 1967).  "Brinded" (line 2) is not a misprint: it is an "early form of 'brindled,' streaked."  Ibid, page 269.

John Inchbold, "The Moorland (Dewar-stone, Dartmoor)" (1854)

While the expansiveness of the day drew me outward and upward, I still had thought for the ground beneath my feet.  At this time of year it seems alive -- warm with life.  Lines from John Drinkwater's "The Wood," which appeared here a few months ago, are apt:

While everywhere, above me, underfoot,
And haunting every avenue of leaves,
Was mystery, unresting, taciturn.

Caught up in our own small worlds, we need to spare a thought now and then for the countless worlds above, around, and below us.

John Inchbold, "Anstey's Cove, Devon" (1854)


Through the pale green forest of tall bracken-stalks,
Whose interwoven fronds, a jade-green sky,
Above me glimmer, infinitely high,
Towards my giant hand a beetle walks
In glistening emerald mail; and as I lie
Watching his progress through huge grassy blades
And over pebble boulders, my own world fades
And shrinks to the vision of a beetle's eye.

Within that forest world of twilight green
Ambushed with unknown perils, one endless day
I travel down the beetle-trail between
Huge glossy boles through green infinity . . .
Till flashes a glimpse of blue sea through the bracken asway,
And my world is again a tumult of windy sea.

Wilfrid Gibson, Neighbours (1920).

Gibson's beetle-world brings to mind the opening stanza of Geoffrey Scott's "All Our Joy Is Enough":

All we make is enough
Barely to seem
A bee's din,
A beetle-scheme --
Sleepy stuff
For God to dream:

John Inchbold, "Bolton Abbey" (1853)

Monday, April 21, 2014


This is a postscript to my post earlier this month about "Things."  It takes its cue from the final two lines of Jorge Luis Borges's poem of that name (which appeared in the post):

They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.

"Well, of course!" most of us would say.  But it is a sobering thought nonetheless.  Off we go into the ether, leaving all these things behind.  I won't presume to invest them with life.  But I cannot help but think that they continue to carry with them some trace of those who have departed.

Evan Charlton (1904-1984), "Hotel Garden"


Like a dream recurring
this house where trees crowd in
by the bend of a stream
pampas whispering in the rain;
through darkling rooms
press beautiful people
and avid fingers
are turning over and over
the delicate riches of old neighbours.

'Not friends, no, not friends,
or we wouldn't be here.
They have gone away now
(we mean they are dead)
leaving behind them
these Venetian lustres,
thick ropes of amber,
snuff boxes, netsukes, cream jugs, miniatures,
and that little French clock.
These delectable morsels
we coveted whenever we dined
at this dull cold house
can be Ours now, Ours. . . .'

'But the books, alas, are stained
and have been read too often'
(maybe far into the night
assuaging tears dropped down on them
that would explain the pity of it)
'they are no use now to Us
nor to anyone.'

Joan Barton (1908-1986), A House Under Old Sarum: New and Selected Poems (Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets 1981).

I have nothing against estate sales.  But when I attend one I feel that I am intruding.  I understand that the erstwhile owners are "sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over."  But I feel their lives hovering about the objects on display.  Not in a spooky way, but in a bittersweet way.

And then the thought arrives:  So this is what it comes to.  These things. The thought comes without condescension (believe me), for I know that it will be exactly the same for me one day:  a few objects on a card table.

Evan Charlton, "The Intruder"

             In an Auction Room

How many deaths and partings spilled
this jumble in an upper room;
and every chair or mirror filled
with elbowing and smell of lives:
the gloom
of this tall wardrobe stopped the sun
entering a home; the great brass bed
stood in its throne-room, and its springs
and shining arms are crammed like mines
with regal illness and with love:
the terrible settee
with worn red flowers, the table de nuit,
the picture with the little man
walking the infinite road
to a West of gold;
these have all been (and are to be)
loves truer than our human mould,
or desperate walls
flung up against the shock of things,
what has no name; or growing old.

Bernard Spencer, Aegean Islands and Other Poems (1946).

Evan Charlton, "Hotel, River and Ruins" (c. 1980)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"It Is A Sort Of April-Weather Life That We Lead In This World"

"But it is a sort of April-weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  So writes William Cowper in a January 3, 1787, letter to the Reverend Walter Bagot.  Cowper, who endured much, knew whereof he spoke.  It is he who wrote two of the most despairing lines in English verse:

I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
                                     Buried above ground.

The entire harrowing poem may be found here, where I suggest a comparison with John Clare's equally  harrowing "I am -- yet what I am, none cares or knows."

However, I do not wish to misrepresent Cowper with those two lines: despite his periods of deep melancholy, he seems to have been a good-natured, amiable, and kind man.  This is revealed in his correspondence, which is a delight to read.

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)


There lurks a sadness in the April air
     For those who note the fate of earthly things;
     A dreamy sense of what the future brings
To those too good, too hopeful or too fair.

An underthought of heartache, as it were,
     Blends with the paean that the new leaf sings;
     And, as it were, a breeze from Death's great wings
Shakes down the blossoms that the fruit-trees bear.

The tide of sap flows up the forest trees;
     The birds exult in every bough on high;
The ivy bloom is full of humming bees;

But if you list, you hear the latent sigh;
     And each new leaf that rustles in the breeze
Proclaims the boundless mutability.

Eugene Lee-Hamilton, Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894).

Lee-Hamilton led an "April-weather life":  for 20 years he was confined to bed and sofa with a paralytic illness that has never been identified. Sonnets of the Wingless Hours was published in the year in which he recovered from the malady, which departed as mysteriously as it had arrived.

James Bateman, "Pastoral" (1928)

                           April Gale

The wind frightens my dog, but I bathe in it,
Sound, rush, scent of the Spring fields.

My dog's hairs are blown like feathers askew,
My coat's a demon, torturing like life.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

Gurney, like Cowper, was a gentle and afflicted soul.  Of course, things are much more complicated than that.  In most poets, a line such as "My coat's a demon, torturing like life" would seem over-dramatic -- an affectation. (So might:  "If one's heart is broken twenty times a day."  Or:  "The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns.")  But not so with Gurney.  His was indeed an "April-weather life."  And he is only reporting exactly how it is.

Arthur Hathaway, "Spring Morning after Rain" (1940)

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Spring came in a rush this week.  Overnight (or so it seemed) all of the trees came into leaf at once.  Perhaps this was merely a trick of the light.  But the coming to greenness had a suddenness about it that was startling.

From a distance, the groves of hardwoods -- though the dark limbs of winter remain visible -- are now covered in a mist of light-green:  not yet the deep-green of summer.  "Nature's first green is gold . . ."

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "Whitby in Wartime"

The following two poems are splendid arrival-of-spring poems.  They capture wonderfully the coming out of hibernation feel of the first long days of the season.   That sense of emerging from a winter burrow, eyes squinting and blinking, out into sunlight and color.

   The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first 'invasion'.
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

"An ideogram on sea-cloud" is particularly lovely.

Richard Eurich, "Queen of the Sea, 1911" (1954)


The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like race-horses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no-one.

Derek Mahon, Ibid.

The lines "We contemplate at last/shining windows, a future forbidden to no-one" bring to mind two other poems.  Mahon's "Everything Is Going To Be All Right" (which has appeared here before) closes with these lines:

The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon, Ibid.

Philip Larkin's "High Windows" ends as follows:

                                 . . . And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

Thursday, April 10, 2014


A watercolor painting of the Suffolk countryside, with Framlingham Castle in the distance, discovered in a Seattle antique store.  A tiny, carved agate hedgehog purchased in a tourist gift store on the shores of Lake Superior.

A black and white engraving (4 inches by 6 inches) of Archimedes being slain by a Roman soldier as he traces out a mathematical diagram on the floor with a stick (again, happened upon in an antique store).  A small, rectangular, ochre-colored flower vase acquired in a pottery shop in Hirosaki, northern Japan.

And an ordinary seashell -- a white cowrie -- found on a beach beside the Andaman Sea.  In light of an unexpected recent event, this last item now carries -- and will always carry -- the most emotional weight for me, in a way I had not foreseen.

All of the above are at hand as I write this.  Things.  You who are reading this likely have similar things nearby at this moment.  Things that have taken on a life of their own.

Robert Lillie (1867-1949), "At My Studio Window"


I had a bicycle called 'Splendid',
A cricket-bat called 'The Rajah',
Eight box-kites and Scotch soldiers
With kilts and red guns.
I had an album of postmarks,
A Longfellow with pictures,
Corduroy trousers that creaked,
A pencil with three colours.

Where do old things go to?
Could a cricket-bat be thrown away?
Where do the years go to?

Arthur Waley, in Ivan Morris (editor), Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley (1970).

Through his translations, Arthur Waley (1889-1966) played a fundamental role in introducing traditional Chinese poetry to the English-speaking world.  (He and Burton Watson are the two best translators of Chinese verse into English.)  He also translated numerous Chinese and Japanese prose works into English, including Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching, The Analects of Confucius, and Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji.

I have only been able to find five original poems written by Waley.  "Song" is one of them.  It has a lovely feel to it:  like Po Chu-i writing in early 20th century England -- which makes perfect sense.

Robert Lillie, "The Paisley Shawl"


My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion.  How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Stephen Kessler), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Robert Lillie, "Part of My Studio Mantel"

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall that I have a May poem (Philip Larkin's "The Trees") and a November poem (Wallace Stevens's "The Region November").  Although my reading of poetry is a matter of happenstance, I do like the thought of having certain seasonal stepping-stones.  I did not go in search of them, but now, annually and reliably, they await me.

The following poem is my April poem.  Given the climate of the Pacific Northwest, the odds are not long that I will visit "Wet Evening in April" on a wet evening in April.  And so it is.

                         Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published on April 19, 1952.

I cannot say enough about the beauty of this poem.  Which means that I should keep my mouth shut.

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

March, April, and May:  they are not as wistful as September, October, and November, but they still have a high wistfulness quotient.  Last week I was walking down a city street when, after a gust of wind, the air was suddenly filled with white and pink cherry blossom petals.  For just an instant I thought they were snow flurries (usuyuki in Japanese -- a lovely word).

   Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-Ti (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)

Of course, we ought not to get carried away in wistfulness, like the moon on a wave.  Which is not to say that wistfulness is a bad thing.  One can be wistful and perfectly content.  Some occasions call for it.  To wit:  standing in place as cherry blossom petals (and, in due time, sere leaves) spin down to the ground all around you.


That man's life is but a dream --
Is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
     to butterflies.

Sogi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)

Thursday, April 3, 2014


A few posts ago, I offered this bit of wisdom from Joseph Conrad:  "When once the truth is grasped that one's own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown the attainment of serenity is not very far off."  Joseph Conrad, Letter to Edward Garnett (March 23, 1896), in Edward Garnett, Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924 (1928), page 46.  I remarked in the post that it was nice that Conrad used the word "serenity" rather than "happiness."

Happiness is overpromoted and overrated.  I cannot presume to speak for the universal order of things, but I venture to say that we are not put on Earth to be happy.  A quick look at popular culture (wherever you hail from) will convince you that "the pursuit of happiness" is a hollow business indeed.  "Distracted from distraction by distraction."

Serenity is another matter entirely.  As are peace of mind, tranquillity, and repose.  One can be sad but serene, unhappy but tranquil.  Peace of mind and repose can be maintained amid cacophony and chaos (the normal state of the world).

James Bateman (1893-1959), "Haytime in the Cotswolds"

Which is not to say that the attainment of serenity is easy, or, once attained, permanent.


When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace?  I'll not play hypocrite

To own my heart:  I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace.  What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good!  And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter.  And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
                                         He comes to brood and sit.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition, 1967).  In a letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins stated that "reave [line 7] is for rob, plunder, carry off."  Ibid, page 278.

"Your round me roaming end" is very nice.  As is:  "And so he does leave Patience exquisite,/That plumes to Peace thereafter."  Yes, the pursuit of happiness tends to breed impatience.

Thomas Henslow Barnard, "Landscape with Ludlow Castle" (1952)

Charles Stuart Calverley wrote light verse and comic verse.  Thus, as I have noted in a previous post, we are perhaps supposed to view the subject of the following poem as a figure of fun.  However, I've never thought so.  I greatly admire him, and I would be pleased to follow in his footsteps.

                     A Study

He stood, a worn-out City clerk --
     Who'd toiled, and seen no holiday,
For forty years from dawn to dark --
     Alone beside Caermarthen Bay.

He felt the salt spray on his lips;
     Heard children's voices on the sands;
Up the sun's path he saw the ships
     Sail on and on to other lands;

And laughed aloud.  Each sight and sound
     To him was joy too deep for tears;
He sat him on the beach, and bound
     A blue bandana round his ears:

And thought how, posted near his door,
     His own green door on Camden Hill,
Two bands at least, most likely more,
     Were mingling at their own sweet will

Verdi with Vance.  And at the thought
     He laughed again, and softly drew
That Morning Herald that he'd bought
     Forth from his breast, and read it through.

C. S. Calverley, Fly Leaves (1872).

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"